Democracy and the Muslim world

The debate over Islam and democracy continues to gain momentum. As the state of democracy in Muslim countries has become a global debate, scores of people from academics, journalists and TV commentators to policy makers and NGOs are discussing the relationship between Islam and democratic values. Numerous meetings, panels, conferences, workshops are held to assess the state of democracy, civil society and human rights in the Muslim world

The debate over Islam and democracy continues to gain momentum. As the state of democracy in Muslim countries has become a global debate, scores of people from academics, journalists and TV commentators to policy makers and NGOs are discussing the relationship between Islam and democratic values. Numerous meetings, panels, conferences, workshops are held to assess the state of democracy, civil society and human rights in the Muslim world

 

. All of these come down to one question: Are Islam and democracy compatible?While there is merit in holding a healthy debate about democracy, not just in Muslim countries but all over the world, the question is both ill-formulated and at least somewhat redundant. It is ill-formulated because it is based on a fallacious logic, which reads as follows: many Muslim countries are ruled by authoritarian regimes. These countries share the same or similar religious and cultural values. Therefore they must be undemocratic due to Islam. It is true that there are many authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries. This fact, however, does not mean that it is a result of the principles and values of Islam. It is also misleading to think that there is no democracy in the Muslim world. In fact, the picture is not as bleak as some think. Today, tens of millions of Muslims embrace democracy and go to the ballots to vote in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine (recently), Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and others. Muslims living as minorities in India, Europe, United States and other parts of the world join the democratic process to the extent to which they are allowed to vote, join political parties or form their own. Many fail to see that the large majority of Muslim societies favor electoral democracy over monarchies and one-man rules. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, it’s the more conservative and Islamic movements that are pushing for further democratization. In most cases, those who are against democratic reforms are the secular elites because they see that the only way their cold-war period ideologies can survive today is through the old policy of reliance on “enlightened despots.” But there is nothing enlightened about the ideologies of top-down modernization, or the despots masquerading as democratically elected leaders. The question whether Islam and democracy are compatible is somewhat redundant today because the question was already answered more than a century ago. In the 19th century, numerous Ottoman, Egyptian, Syrian, Iranian and Indian intellectuals and scholars were engaged in a similar debate. The overall tone of that debate is clear: there is no conflict of compatibility between Islam with establishing parliaments, adopting constitutions, limiting the powers of the monarch, protecting the equal rights of citizens, etc. All of these elements were gradual and consistent steps towards what we today call democracy. The real struggle today is not about the introduction of electoral democracy to Muslim countries. No one except the Taliban objects to ballots — and even the Taliban had their own councils, the loya jirga, and employed some measure of democratic representation. The current conflict is rather about subduing the state, so that it allows the periphery to prosper and strengthen itself. The ruthless battle between the powerful centralized states and the disempowered peripheries cripple all attempts at fostering civic values, increasing the autonomy of the civil society, encouraging citizens to demand accountability. And the list goes on. So who is supporting these authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries? Certainly not the ordinary citizens who want to see justice, equality, peace, security and welfare for all in their countries. Furthermore, when democracy is allowed and the results come in, who are the first to declare them null and void? The case of the FIS electoral win in Algeria, and the Western countries who turned a blind eye or worse to the military coup that followed, is still remember

In this article